Chasing a Pizza Legend at Frank Pepe's
This is a diversion from my usual barbecue restaurant reviews, but in a way this post is as much about barbecue as it is about pizza. Hear me out.
It may sound like blasphemy to readers in Brooklyn or East Boston, but for many neutral observers, the best pizza in the country is believed to reside in New Haven CT. For years I've been hearing about Frank Pepe's brick oven pies, and on a Monday in april I tried one for the first time. I was driving back home to the Boston area from Long Island, where I judged a barbecue contest on Sunday, and I needed to stop somewhere for lunch. But it took a while to get there.
While sitting at the counter of Super Duper Weenie in Fairfield, I took several photos of a hotdog, which inevitably led to some conversation with the locals.
"You know, it tastes a lot better if you actually eat it."
"Very true," I say. "But I'm waiting for my fries and my other dog."
"What are you, a food critic?"
"Not really, I just like food. But I do have a barbecue review site. I'm so used to taking photos of barbecue for the site that it's become second nature at other meals too. I try to take photos whenever I'm somewhere good."
Overhearing the implied compliment, griddle honcho Super Duper Gary joined in: "Have you been to Wilson's BBQ? It's just a few exits from here."
"Yeah, I've been there and it's good. I'd be there now, but they're not open on Mondays."
The local, unfazed by the now-completed order of two dogs and boat of hand-cut, aggressively peppered fries in front of me, kept the suggestions coming. "Frank Pepe's Pizza is also nearby."
"But they're not open for lunch, are they?"
"They didn't used to be, but they are now."
My hotdog drops to the counter. "Really? How close are they from here?"
"Go up one block, take a left, and they're two traffic lights down the street."
As much as I was diggin' those dogs and fries, I slam the brakes on this meal so I can make that 3-block drive. Within minutes I'm at Frank Pepe's Fairfield outpost, trying to figure out the best way to get as much variety as I can into a small pie. I wanted to get a 2-way, but I also wanted to try their signature white clam. Since you can't mix white and red on the same pie, I took some suggestions from the staff and went with all red: sausage and mushroom on one half, bacon and onion on the other.
A few minutes later my pie was delivered by Beautiful Dawn, who made it a point to tell me a few different times during the meal how many compliments she was receiving for her beautiful face and beautiful skin from a large party of older ladies she was waiting on in the next room. A pretty girl for sure, but the pie was prettier: a nice thin crust, a little blackening on the underside, balanced cheese-to-tomato ratio and toppings more artfully done than in most Massachusetts pizzerias (then again, Sbarro is more artful than most Massachusetts pizzerias).
In the end, I'm not really sure how much I liked the pie, as it can be difficult to judge a legend (be it pizza, barbecue, steak, you name it). Expectations are sky high, so anything less than perfection is certain to disappoint. Was it good? Absolutely. Excellent? Absolutely. Perfection? Not quite. The best ever? Absolutely not. Was it good enough to go back? Absolutely.
A quick digression:
There's a lot of similarity between pizza and barbecue, and one of the reasons the subject of who makes the best pizza is as hotly debated as who makes the best barbecue is the myriad of styles. With barbecue, some like it smoky, some like it spicy. Some like it saucy, some like it dry. Some just like it smoked, some like it grilled after smoking, some don't even care if it's smoked. With pizza, some like a thick crust, some like a thin crust. Some like it crispy, some like it droopy. Some like deep dish. Some like a lot of cheese and very little tomato, some like it the other way around. In the end, people's favorites tend to be more of an endorsement of a favorite style than a favorite joint. If you ask me where to go for pizza or ribs, I'll never tell you the name of a joint. Instead, I'll ask a question. "That depends, how do you like your pizza?" Or "How do you like your ribs?"
Back to the story:
Fairfield must be a friendly town, because I struck up a conversation with one of the locals at Pepe's as well. Over in the next booth, a gentleman in his 60s told me that he'd been coming to Pepe's for more than four decades.
"I have to ask you, and please answer honestly," I say in the most respectful tone I can summon. "Is Pepe's as good now that they've expanded as they were a few years ago?"
"Not even close," he said, quickly shaking his head. "They're still the best, but they're nothing like they were before. If you want to keep a tradition going for years, you can't have kids who don't give a shit making the pies. To them, it's just a job—they don't care how the pies come out. When I first started coming they had men who had been there for years, who treated it as a craft, who put LOVE into it. Today there's no love. I have family who come in from other parts of the country once a year just to have the pizza they love so much, and when they try it now, they ask, 'What happened?'"
Like I said, there's a lot of similarity between pizza and barbecue.
Urban Spoon reviews of Frank Pepe's in Fairfield CT